Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Alcohol, Part 3B: GABA GABA Hey!

People who say they sleep well or--get this--better, after getting loaded are just messing with me, right? They're savoring that moment when my brow furrows and I'm actually considering that something so batshit absurd might be true.

That's all I can conclude when I go to bed drunk, then snap out of the three-hour oblivion that is my booby prize each time trembling, short of breath, delirious with thirst, heart beating Keith Moon fills.

In darkness it dawns on me that the party is over, more over than any party has ever been. My headache emerges, fearsomely brandishing its chitinous, venom-filled pincers before skewering my unprotected brain.

I groan to the bathroom (hopefully this is a familiar place where the route is memorized) and spit into the toilet. On good nights it's a copper-flavored loogie or two fresh from my sinuses. On bad nights it's the opening salvo of bile in a puking blitzkrieg. How impressive that the urge to do this supersedes my primal, cellular craving for WATER.

Drinking from a Dixie cup is every kind of inadequate in these situations, so I duck beneath the tap and slurp in all I can. The head rush as I come up is staggering. Face dripping, I go back to bed but certainly not back to sleep--my blood, organs, skin still tingle and thump with a screeching intensity somewhere between the effects of amphetamines and Lucky Charms.

Then the sonovabitch who lives between my ears starts his audit of the embarrassing stuff I said and did hours earlier and will never live down. To ensure I have enough wakey time to think about them over and over and over, he proceeds to belt out a spirited, off-key rendition of "Party in the USA" or "She Bangs" on infinite loop.

An hour or two later, maybe, I can shut the system back down until the alarm goes off and the process repeats when the sun is out.

What's that? Deal with your hangovers like a man? Take four aspirin with a big glass of STFU? Fair enough--a hangover probably never killed anyone, and if they rendered you legitimately infirm the economy of World #1 Alcohol Consumer Moldova would be doneski from the perpetual sick days taken by the work force.

But each one is a galaxy of pain, you will not take that from me. The five-alarm ones hurt worse--shorter, maybe, but worse--than anything up to and sometimes including the flu. So when I hear that you snooze like a thousand year-old glacier after drinking eleven glasses of whatever and wake up spry and ready for your employee of the month award, forgive me for being incredulous and/or punching a wall.

(Standard internet "I'm Not A Doctor" disclaimer goes here.)

Drinking enough to get drunk is certainly doing some curious things to the brain, and drinking enough to get hangover-sick is certainly doing some nasty things to the body. And--save that one guy who woke up hungover, said "I will never drink again" and actually meant it--the worst morning of your life since the last worst morning of your life never squelches the thirst for more of the euphoria that got you there.

Because it's a very persuasive euphoria, this. Due respect to Wordsworth, it's a more essential joy than contemplating all the silent lakes and elfin pinnaces in Europe. To specify, this is about the bliss that sets in after your second or third drink; the infant intoxication, when the stressful or bad or just effing normal day you were having gets smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, you roll the top down, crank up the anthem that just came on the radio, and claim the highway as yours.

By the fifth or sixth drink and maybe the first or second cigarette, it's not the same. Chances are you still feel "good", but that fresh, ripe apple you bit into before is starting to brown a little. So knock back a few more to try to get back to where you were, or at least freeze-frame where you are now, and keep going until you realize you're just chasing your losses. Which will probably happen around the time you're holding a Heineken 22 in your mysteriously scraped hand and berating the intercom at the White Castle drive-thru about how pedestrians have the same right to 3 AM Crave Cases as drivers do, elitist pricks. The apple is pockmarked with rot and swarming with ants.

I'm intrigued by the chemical game of chicken occurring in the nervous system as this snafu unfolds. If I've got it half-right or better (source), alcohol causes the release of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which makes you feel good and act stupid. Your brain knows this and responds by sending out the stimulant glutamate which partly counteracts the stumbling effects of the GABA and makes you less likely to remove yourself from the gene pool. When both chemicals are pumping at the same time, even though they're working against each other you feel groovy.

But the GABA flow always (?) tapers off and stops before the glutamate does, and without GABA (whose molecules I imagine look like smiley faces under a microscope), glutamate (molecules I imagine look like Gunnery Sgt. Hartman) makes you feel bad. Like, "I need another drink now to make this stop" bad. So you either a) close your tab and grit through the discomfort until the glutamate fades, or b) convince yourself it isn't a vicious cycle, that in fifteen minutes the laws of science go home for the evening, and have "one more" drink. Some have little or no trouble going with a), which is cool. Lots do.


Doctor, why are we wired to have these reactions to things like GABA? The evolutionary logic for glutamate is clear enough, but how does the capacity for getting buzzed perpetuate the species? Perhaps science can't explain everything and there's a higher power working here. You know that famous Ben Franklin quote "Sippin' on Coke and rum, I'm like 'So what, I'm drunk'"? Wait, it's "Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy". Probably another misquote like that "penny saved" nonsense, and regardless, it doesn't bring us to understanding. It brings us to church.

And if the pleasure of drinking does come from above, wouldn't you agree that the Man Upstairs played one hell of a mean joke on us with hangovers? But hangovers end, usually in hours, and that's the key to why we can laugh about them and do the whole thing over again and again until one day we own up--by choice or by diagnosis--to our mortality vis-a-vis getting wasted.

Imagine if every hangover lasted for a week. Maybe then it would seem like less than the perfect seasoning on your brunch omelet and more like a foreshadowing of worse things to come if you don't cut back on the euphoria. Give me the flu over that any day, with a side of home fries and a Bloody Mary, extra bloody.

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